Aid worker Tauqir Sharif, known as Tox, was born and raised in the UK. With his wife, he founded the aid organisation Live Updates from Syria, but then the UK government stripped Tox of his citizenship. This is his story.
My name is Tauqir Sharif, and I am a 31-year-old aid worker and father of five. My friends call me Tox for short. I am living in Northern Syria, in a relatively safe town, with my wife and children.
I was born in Whipps Cross hospital in London and the only country I have ever known is the UK. During Ramadan of 2017 (June), I was stripped of my British citizenship.
At first, I thought it was some kind of joke, but then it dawned on me that it was real. I had heard about these letters before.
Here’s what it said, and the reasons I was given:
“As the Secretary of State, I hereby give notice in accordance with the British Nationality Act 1981, that I intend to have an order made to deprive you of your British citizenship. This is because it would be conducive to the public good to do so.”
I grew up in East London. What I learned whilst in the UK was what shaped me – universal values of compassion, courage and doing good.
I couldn’t believe my government had deemed me “not conducive to the public good” – and not only that, they refused to produce evidence for their allegations. This means that neither my lawyer nor I can adequately challenge the decision.
Now my wife and I, and our children are stranded here in Syria.
How I got here
I first saw the heart-wrenching images of Syrian civilians being forced to prostrate to pictures of Bashar al Assad in 2012. Civilians being buried alive by Syrian soldiers whilst being asked to proclaim that there was “No god except for Bashar”, shook me to my core.
These images were enough to move me and a group of friends into action. We decided to drive 12 ambulances laden with aid from Britain to the war zone of Syria.
It wasn’t the first time we had attempted something like this. I had travelled with a group of activists to Gaza in 2009 on a similar convoy after the region had been devastated by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.
I am also a survivor of the infamous Mavi Marmara freedom flotilla, another journey that would change my life forever.
Truth be told I have always been passionate about helping those in need in any way I could.
So, after a few successful attempts of bringing aid convoys to Syria through Turkish territory, in 2012 my wife Racquell and I decided to stay here.
One of the main reasons we did so was the hospitality of the people, their warmth and the fact that they were amazed to see that we had left the comfort of London to help them.
We began working in whatever capacity we could, teaching English within the refugee camps, delivering primary aid, building tents and even distributing bread.
As the war displaced more people we changed to accommodate this. We began to establish schools and learning centres as well as widows’ homes. We began to give counselling for people who suffered from PTSD and we sponsored hundreds of orphans.
The first gas attack in Ghouta was an eye opener and brought with it a new chapter in the war. We had to change our tactics.
‘Live Updates from Syria’ was born. It was our baby, our outlet, our way to let the world know what was going on.
It was a huge success. Support came in from places we could not imagine. We were heroes in the eyes of many, as they saw the value of our work in extreme conditions.
At that time, British foreign policy was also on our side, and it was relatively easy for us to move around. We had our first daughter around this time too, and she was born in the city of Adana in Turkey.
In 2014, the rise of Daesh in the region meant our image was tarnished and people began to see us all as crazed lunatics who had gone over to Syria to kill and plunder.
This of course didn’t deter us, and we continued our humanitarian efforts. Little did we know that soon we would become enemy number one on the hit list for Daesh.
When they kidnapped British aid worker Alan Henning, who had arrived in another aid convoy to help the Syrian people, we worked tirelessly to try to get him back.
But the brutal Daesh agenda meant that it was "okay" to kidnap and kill him even though he was protected by an oath of 100 Muslims.
British foreign policy began to change, and with it so did the borders. We now had to make a choice about whether to stay in Syria and continue our work and projects or retreat to Turkey. We chose to stay.
We now employ 200 people
We stayed here because somebody had to speak the truth about what was happening. Most importantly, we strongly opposed Daesh and what it stood for.
That meant that instead of being enemies of only Bashar, we were now enemies of Baghdadi too. Many of their members threatened to kill us, and they even tried on a few occasions to do so. We had a bomb planted at one of our projects.
But we were undeterred. The war continued and it was relentless: Madaya, Zabadani, the Aleppo siege, the sarin attacks of Khan Sheikhoun … these are all chapters in our story.
We have built an aid organisation which today counts eight departments, 41 projects and 170 staff.
Despite the risks, life was good. We felt fulfilled. We were doing what we loved and working to help humanity.
Then came the dreaded letter.
By making us stateless the UK government is contributing to the Daesh propaganda machine.
Thanks to this development, we are now outlawed by Bashar’s regime and are targets of Daesh, we are cut off by the British government and we cannot leave Syria, even to Turkey.
The truth is that unfortunately, despite our good work and media, we could not match the Daesh propaganda machine and its hold on the British media and the British government.
The reality is that Daesh beheadings sell papers and scare politicians and their public into adopting damaging policies. Friendly aid workers don’t increase viewing ratings and delivering aid doesn’t make strong headlines.
The thing is, we fully understand the sentiment of the British government: they fear for their security and the security of the public.
But in their fear, they have become contributors to the Daesh factory, even as Baghdadi’s followers defend their last slither of territory in Baghuz.
We ask ourselves: after all the work we have done, after all our interactions with the Syrian people as Muslims and as British citizens, why does the UK want to expel us?
What does it mean to be British now anyway?
We cannot overlook the elephants in the room. British foreign policy, the repressive counter-terrorism legislation and now these draconian citizen deprivation laws – which have actually been happening for over a decade, but which have only now started to be questioned publicly.
These developments are leading to the ostracising of a community.
Many in the United Kingdom fear that the Britain they once knew no longer exists. Some politicians and journalists, along with other professionals, are rightly calling out these laws as racist, especially since they target those of colour.
Deprivations such as mine have left an air of confusion and in some cases fear. Muslims are wondering whether they will ever be British enough.
More than that: if helping others in Syria and building a major aid organisation that employs almost 200 people is “not conducive to the public good”, then what does it mean to be British these days
One of the most amazing things for me about growing up in London is how ethnically diverse the city is. I am a product of London. The city was the place where I was shaped and grown.
If I was to go to Pakistan, which is technically where I am supposed to go, I would be a fish out of the water. I can’t speak the language properly; I would need a translator.
This is not to mention a number of challenges I would face in Pakistan.
Culture and the surroundings in which you grew up are what define you. What I learned growing up in the UK were the British values that have shaped me – and they are good universal values.
Sadly, however, I believe they no longer exist among the powerful and those that the media allows to swing opinion.
There are many others like me who are now trapped and stateless, only because we left our homes to in answer the cries of the helpless. We only want a chance to adequately challenge the decision and tell the truth of our situation.
Perhaps our stories will bring more support. Certainly, there are many in the UK and elsewhere who will continue to stand behind us, wherever we may be.
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